Apparition d’un visage nimbé dans le ciel au-dessus de Paris (Appearance of a Haloed Face in the Sky over Paris), 1898
This painting is one of a number of subjects imagined by Eugène Grasset that explains the interest idealists took in his work from the early 1890s on. Like them, he was sensitive to the sacred, to mystery and dreams, and also shared the symbolist and decadent taste for angels, figures from legend, female musicians, and for the heroic narratives of the middle ages.
Here, a haloed face is a vast, surreal apparition in the night sky over Paris. The timeless epiphany forms a striking contrast with the modern view of the city from the banks of the Seine by the Sully bridge, with the towers of Notre Dame in the distance. The contrast is taken up in the palette of colours, from the cadmium yellow of the ethereal face to the blue-black of the river snaking between the quays, and in the naturalist approach to the foreground and the decoratively stylised clouds striping the sky – one of Grasset’s favourite motifs since his famous 1889 poster Jeanne d’Arc, for a play featuring Sarah Bernhardt.
The androgynous, youthful, strict-looking young woman staring out at us could indeed be Joan of Arc, wearing chain mail and holding a banner. Like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whose Jeanne d’Arc au sacre du roi Charles VII (Joan of Arc at the Coronation of King Charles VII, 1854, Paris, Musée du Louvre) he no doubt had in mind, Grasset has given the figure a halo. The Church had begun the process of raising Joan of Arc to sainthood the year before, in 1897. Grasset often showed his devotion to the French heroine – his mother shared the same name with her. As well as the aforementioned poster, he told Joan of Arc’s story in ten stained-glass windows designed for a contest for the cathedral of the Holy Cross in Orleans in 1893. In this work, he makes her appear like a new star whose light is destined to rouse the consciences of a sleeping city.
Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, ‘Eugène Grasset et la question du symbolisme,’ in Catherine Lepdor (ed.), Eugène Grasset. L’art et l’ornement, exh. cat. Lausanne, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Milan, 5 Continents Editions, 2011: 85-95.